Friday, December 01, 2017

Chinese Noir: Explosion (and Coffin in the Mountain)

I have roughly zero regrets about my recent vacation, although I must admit that I do wish that I had gotten to see more of the Brattle's "New Chinese Noir" series, both because I'm always down for checking out Chinese cinema and film noir separately, but also because it's a genuinely intriguing coda to their year-long celebration of the (approximate) 75th anniversary of the genre. Unfortunately, the scheduling meant I missed two of the four films entirely and was kind of a zombie for the one I did see, and so can't really do a great review. The fourth, Free + Easy, I caught at Fantasia. I might not be writing anything about it if China Lion hadn't released Explosion a couple weeks later

Add Have a Nice Day to the mix, and Blood of Youth (which I saw at New York Asian), noting that these are all mainland films as opposed to Hong Kong Crime, and it starts to look like a fascinating moment fo the Chinese film industry. They've been sending movies to America at a greater clip recently, mostly airy entertainments marketed directly to expatriates and Chinese-American audiences and for a while, they tended to feel the same: Slick, good looking, showing a prosperous Beijing and seemingly happy to play ball with the certification board, very old-Hollywood, flexing a lot of new economic muscle in being able to make big, export-quality pictures and even attract foreign stars and filmmakers.

Noir came after that in America, and it seems as though the people making these movies in China are looking for cracks the same way that their American predecessors did, using crime to tell stories about the people a recent boom has left behind, seeing just how cynical they can get without actually running afoul of the local film board the way others poked at the Hays Code. Where Americans tended to place these stories in cities swamped with corruption, these Chinese movies take place in the middle of nowhere, industrial zones that never properly took off. It's an absent government, and citizens not doing their full duty, that is causing the trouble here, making the crime story a little more palatable for the censors even as it does have some sharp criticisms.

Another thing that separates Chinese noir from the American variety is that, rather than happening inside the studio system, it also seems to be developing side-by-side with independent cinema. Sure, Explosion is from a major studio, but a number of these films have been making it onto the festival circuit without the tons of title cards and company credits that the big releases have. I'm not sure just how independent they can be, but there is often a different, less-processed feel about them.

Admittedly, I'm generalizing from relatively few movies here, but it's certainly an interesting set. I just got a piece of email saying that potentially the most interesting, the animated Have a Nice Day, is getting an American release in January/February, and I'll be interested to see what people think of that. In the meantime, a lot of these are going to be hard to find (many don't even get a Chinese video release to import), so if Explosion interests you, it might be worth catching one of the 4pm shows it has through Thursday.

Xin mi gong (Coffin in the Mountain, aka Deep in the Heart)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (New Chinese Noir, DCP)

A nifty if deliberate little story of unhappy relationships thrown into disarray by an accidental death, this one serves up multiple flavors of irony and dark but deadpan comedy. It could probably stand to be a little more disciplined in its storytelling one way or the other, because it's just stone-faced enough not to get much real pleasure from the bits of chaos and coincidence that are truly random.

Yin Bao Zhe (Explosion, 2017)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 November 2017 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

Movies are easily and frequently mocked for jamming an explosion into the action in order to placate the less--sophisticated members of the audience, and it can be a fair criticism - explosions are often a fairly blunt tool, not exactly used for subtle purposes. Filmmaker Chang Zheng apparently took that as a challenge, building his film Yin Bao Zhe ("Explosion" in English) not as an action spectacular, but as a film noir, and making it a pretty good one, even if much more does blow up here than is usual for that genre.

Its hard-luck hero is Zhao XuDong (Duan Yihong), an explosives detonator working in a coal mine run by "Brother" Yi, who comes across as more gangster than businessman. The film opens with an explosion much larger than the explosives XuDong set should have caused, killing four and leading Yi to sack XuDong with a small payoff, but not report it to the authorities - an official investigation might turn anything up, maybe even forcing Yi to sell out to Cheng Fei (Cheng Taishen). On the one hand, XuDong is fine with that; even if local chief of police Xu Feng (Wang Jingchun) has been XuDong's friend since childhood, chief safety officer San Bai would probably deflect attention to the guy who spent three years in jail for making homebrew TNT back in the day anyway. Maybe he could use the money to help girlfriend Xiao Hong (Yu Nan) open a bigger, classier restaurant. But the dead men eat at XuDong, and with no official investigation to seal the scene, a man can poke around on his own, whether it's a good idea or not.

Director Chang creates a somber mood right off the bat, opening with narration from XuDong about how his father said not to follow him into the mines but implying that he wound up there anyway out of some sort of inevitability, like that's just how it works in this sort of community. If the film doesn't actually open in the mine, the camera is moving into them soon enough, and even when the action moves out from underground, Chang maintains that sort of aesthetic - it never fully washes off of XuDong, for instance, and Hong's restaurant is also tight and claustrophobic, with the miners bringing the coal dust in with them. It doesn't confer any sort of unusual working-class decency to the likes of XuDong, but it does make the wealthy folks like Cheng Fei seem unnaturally clean. The movie lives in these grimy industrial places and the industrial town that surrounds them, enough to make a bright desert setting seen later on seem not like freedom, but like the people there have been removed from the world entirely.

Full review on EFC.

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